As the officials of the Bush administration pack up in Washington and move into their posh suburban homes around the country, will they be able to rest easy, or will they be haunted by the fear that they will be held accountable for war crimes?
There are many reasons to anticipate that the incoming Obama administration and the new Congress will let sleeping dogs lie. Attention to criminal acts by the former administration would probably anger Republicans, whose support Obama is hoping to win for his first priority, his economic program. Democratic Congressional leaders have known a great deal about Bush administration lawlessness, and in some cases have even given it their approval–making an unfettered review seem unlikely.
Some of Obama’s own top appointees would undoubtedly receive scrutiny in an unconstrained investigation–Obama’s reappointed defense secretary Robert Gates, for example, has had responsibility not only for Guantánamo but also for the incarceration of tens of thousands of Iraqis in prisons in Iraq like Camp Bucca, which the Washington Post described in a headline as “a Prison Full of Innocent Men,” without even a procedure for determining their guilt or innocence–unquestionably a violation of the Geneva Conventions in and of itself.
But the repose of the Cheneys, Bushes, Gonzaleses and Rumsfelds may not turn out to be so undisturbed. In his notorious torture memo, Alberto Gonzales warned about “prosecutors and independent counsels” who may in the future decide to pursue “unwarranted charges” based on the US War Crimes Act’s prohibition on violations of the Geneva Conventions. While no such charges are likely to be brought anytime soon, neither are they likely to vanish. In the short run, Obama and his team face inescapable questions about the legal culpability of the Bush administration. And in the long run, such charges are likely to grow only more unavoidable once the former officials of that administration have lost the authority to quash them.
In April Obama said that if elected, he would have his attorney general initiate a prompt review of Bush-era action to distinguish between possible “genuine crimes” and “really bad policies.”
“If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Obama told the Philadelphia Daily News. He added, however, that “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”
Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, speaking to the American Constitution Society in June, described Bush administration actions in terms that sound a whole lot more like “genuine crimes” than like “really bad policies”: